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POPE-EVOLUTION Sep-5-2006 (550 words) xxxi

Participant: Pope's closed seminar didn't focus on intelligent design

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

ROME (CNS) -- Pope Benedict XVI spent a day guiding a closed-door symposium on evolution, but the U.S. controversy over intelligent design did not figure much in the discussions, a participant said.

The occasion was the annual gathering of former doctoral students of the pope Sept. 1-3; it was hosted in part by the pontiff at his summer villa in Castel Gandolfo, outside Rome.

This year's topic was "Creation and Evolution," and one of the presenters was Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna, who has argued against what he called "ideological Darwinism." That prompted media speculation that the pope was considering a shift in the church's general acceptance of the theory of evolution.

But U.S. Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio, who attended the symposium, said nothing was presented at the meeting that "would break new ground or that lays the foundation for a new position."

And while participants discussed the relationship among faith, reason and science, Father Fessio said that "the whole American debate on intelligent design did not occur at all here."

Father Fessio said the overall thrust of the presentations and discussion, in which the pope took an active part, confirmed the idea that the church can live with evolution as an explanation of the "how" of creation, as long as evolutionary theory does not try to exclude a divine cause.

He said the philosophical component was an important part of the symposium, which went beyond the perspectives of religion and natural science.

Some, like Cardinal Schonborn, have argued that there is a way of knowing from the scientific data that there must be a creator who is organizing life development or causing life forms to be ordered in a certain way, Father Fessio said.

Supporters of intelligent design say there are gaps in evolutionary theory, and they say those gaps can be better explained scientifically by their own theory that a design and purpose are inherent in life-forms that spring from an unnamed intelligence.

Father Fessio said the group met Sept. 1 without the pope, who had scheduled a trip to an Italian sanctuary that day, and heard presentations by Austrian molecular biologist Peter Schuster; German Jesuit Father Paul Elbrich, a professor of natural philosophy; and Robert Spaemann, a German philosopher.

On Sept. 2, with the pope in attendance, those presentations were summarized and Cardinal Schonborn spoke. A wider discussion followed in the afternoon.

Father Fessio said that "at the end, as he always does, the pope beautifully summarized some of the major points of all the presentations and our discussions."

In an unprecedented decision, the pope also encouraged the students to publish the papers and discussions in several languages, because of their high quality, Father Fessio said.

That means that eventually the world will get a firsthand look at the content of the symposium. When the papers are published, Father Fessio said, people will see that the gathering did not mark any significant shift in direction on the church and evolution, but rather a deeper understanding of the challenges it poses.

Father Fessio, who studied under the future Pope Benedict at the University of Regensburg in Germany in the 1970s, is provost of Ave Maria University in Naples, Fla., and founder and editor of Ignatius Press.


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